Could there be anything worse for the chicken industry than this month's outbreak of an antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella that hospitalized 42 percent of everyone who got it--almost 300 in 18 states-? Yes. The government also announced that China has been cleared to process chickens for the US dinner plate and that all but one of arsenic compounds no one knew they were eating anyway have been removed from US poultry production. Thanks for that. Also this month, some food researchers have revealed the true recipe for chicken "nuggets" "just in time for Halloween.
Do you remember the joke "denial is not a river in Egypt"? Well "Heidelberg" is not a charismatic city in Germany when you're talking about food. It is a monster version of salmonella, some strains of which are resistant to seven antibiotics says Christopher Braden , director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention division of foodborne diseases. Thirteen percent of people affected by the current outbreak have salmonella septicemia, a serious, life-threatening, whole-body inflammation, says Braden. The contamination stems from "fecal material on carcasses, poor sanitary dressing practices, insanitary food contact surfaces, insanitary nonfood contact surfaces, and direct product contamination," says the USDA. That about covers it. The California-based Foster Farms, believed to be the source of the outbreak, has had salmonella problems for a decade says Food Poisoning News. Nor has the government shut them down, even now.
Salmonella is a "naturally occurring bacteria" says the USDA and hence allowed in food--but we are supposed to cook chicken and other products to at least 165 -F to kill it and other microbial freeloaders. But Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest disagrees with the government's leniency. Salmonella strains like Heidelberg "are too hot for consumers to handle in their kitchens," she told USA Today.
Just because chicken has salmonella doesn't mean it doesn't also have E. coli! Eighty-seven percent of chicken cadavers test positive for E. coli before they are sent to stores reports Salon. E.coli is considered more dangerous than salmonella by the USDA and was one of the reasons Russia banned 19 US poultry producers in 2008 (along with US arsenic residues.) Antibiotic-resistant E. coli traces were found in samples of raw conventional chicken, chickens "raised without antibiotics" and kosher chicken purchased in New York City in April. The highest E. coli incidence was, surprisingly, found in the kosher chicken. Last year, researchers writing in Emerging Infectious Diseases reported that E. coli in chicken is genetically closer to human E. coli than E. coli in beef and pork samples and could put people at risk for urinary tract infections when they are exposed to it because of its similarity.
"What Was Arsenic Doing in Our Chicken, Anyway?" asks a Bloomberg article after the FDA reported the end of all but one poultry arsenic product this month, four years after the Center for Food Safety filed a petition. The agency announced that the Center's petition to have the approvals of arsenic-containing poultry feed revoked had become "moot" after the "sponsors of those drugs requested that FDA withdraw the approvals for those products." One of the four compounds, nitarsone, is still on the market while the FDA reviews its safety.
Why are birds fed arsenic? It has been approved in poultry feed for years to control parasites, promote weight gain and improve feed efficiency and "pigmentation." A 2013 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspective s found detectable levels of arsenic in chicken from grocery stores in 10 American cities, including organic chickens. If the drug were fed to all chickens, over 100 US deaths would result from arsenic-related lung and bladder cancers, wrote the authors. Nor is arsenic the only unwanted chemical guest. Looking at feathers of factory farmed birds, researchers have also found evidence of caffeine and the active ingredients in Tylenol, Benadryl, Prozac reports the New York Times Nick Kristof. The caffeine is supposed to keep chickens awake so they eat more, while the Benadryl, Tylenol and Prozac are supposed to reduce their anxiety so their meat doesn't get tough says Kristof.
Where do antibiotic-resistant salmonella and E.coli in chicken come from? Is that a trick question? More than 70 percent of US antibiotics go to livestock --more than 29 million pounds of antibiotics a year--which of course creates antibiotic resistance. The antibiotic resistant pathogens aren't just a risk to food--they're a risk to farm workers. Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, found 63 percent of the chicken workers at one plant had been colonized by Campylobacter jejuni, a germ that is the second leading cause of gastrointestinal disease in the US. One hundred percent of people living near the plant but not working there who were tested had Campylobacter jejuni too.
In 2008, the USDA caught chicken giant Tyson Foods claiming "no antibiotics" in its ads and labels but brazenly using the human antibiotic gentamicin as "standard practice" in its chickens. Tyson has been charged with other scourges affecting Big Chicken too such as cruelty to animals, paying smugglers to transport illegal workers, and violating the Clean Water Act. It was investigated for bribing veterinarians in Mexico but never charged.